Addressing the public health crisis in West Virginia

Too many West Virginians are dying from drug overdoses. We have been in this crisis for years and unfortunately, according to new government data, the crisis is growing. In the past year, we lost 1,607 of our friends and neighbors to drug overdose deaths—a 62% increase over the year before.

These deaths are preventable, but only if people have access to quality addiction treatment. Nationally, it’s estimated that only one in 10 Americans with an addiction receives treatment in any given year.

We were in this crisis before Covid hit. The pandemic only made matters worse. But it is my hope that we are on the verge of charting a better course forward, one that can make life better for thousands of West Virginians, their families and their communities.

In 2020, West Virginia joined a growing movement to expand access to quality mental health and substance use care. Certified Community Behavioral Health Centers (CCBHCs) receive federal funding to provide 24-hour crisis care and evidence-based services to anyone in need of mental health or substance use treatment services, regardless of ability to pay. West Virginia had three CCBHCs operating in 2020. And this summer, three additional CCBHCs came online in our state.

We know from other states that have been part of the CCBHC program for several years that CCBHCs increase staff to expand access to comprehensive services, stabilize people in crisis and provide the necessary treatment for those with the most serious, complex mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Among the hallmarks of CCBHCs is their ability to improve access for rural populations and provide tailored care for active-duty military and veterans. Through collaborations with law enforcement, CCBHCs divert people in crisis from jails, reduce hospitalizations and emergency department visits and generate cost savings for taxpayers.

CCBHCs are positioned to change the way mental health and substance use care is delivered in West Virginia. But funding for the CCBHC program requires regular renewal from Congress, which can create uncertainty for providers and communities alike. Fortunately, Congress is considering legislation that would address that.

The bipartisan Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act (S. 2069/H.R. 4323) would allow any state the option to apply to participate in the CCBHC demonstration program and would establish a sustainable financing option to support their operations. Currently, this option is limited to 10 states and West Virginia is not one of them. The legislation also would authorize funding for individual provider organizations to receive CCBHC Expansion Grants via the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This is the path that has funded West Virginia’s clinics.

West Virginians have always prided ourselves on taking care of one another and the Excellence Act is an opportunity to do just that. As we are grateful for the sponsorship by Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley, we still are urging our congressional delegation, including Senator Joe Manchin, to support this important legislation through passage.

The opportunity to make a difference—to break the cycle of addiction and save lives—is right now. We cannot and must not go backwards. If Congress passes the Excellence Act, I am confident that a better future is on the horizon for the people of West Virginia.

Mark Drennan is CEO of the West Virginia Behavioral Healthcare Providers Association.